Why do we have any empty seats in church on a Sunday? I’m not asking about your own church strategy, but about the general decline in church attendance—and in faith—in Western countries. Some people blame changes in our culture; others blame the culture of the churches. Still others think it is the fault of the clergy (‘lack of leadership’), whilst some respond that it is a secular obsession with ‘leadership’ that is the problem. But in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19–31), I think Jesus offers us a central answer.
Before diving into the parable itself, we need to think about what we are doing when we are reading parables. Much online comment about this passage focuses on what happens when we die, whether judgement is immediate, whether the damned and the saved can communicate, and so on. But focussing on such questions missed the point. Jesus is not telling this story in order to offer us a lesson in post-mortem cosmic geography. We do not ask in which field the sower sowed his crop, or what the crop was (Mark 4), or why the merchant who found the finest pearly didn’t try to get a bank loan (Matt 13) or who was looking after the 99 other sheep (Luke 15; ‘Jonny, if I had 20 sheep and there was a hole in the fence and one escaped, how many sheep would I have?’ ‘None, miss’. ‘Jonny, you don’t know much about maths, do you?’ ‘Miss, you don’t know much about sheep, do you?’). There is a clear sense that the parables (as it were) create their own world, and it is the shape of this world, as much as the actions of the characters, which provide the impact of the story and help to make the point. We need to enter the world of the parable, explore it a little, and see what Jesus is teaching us through it.
The first thing we notice is the apparel of the rich man. The mention of ‘fine linen’ and ‘purple’ doesn’t simply tell us that he had a good dress sense, or had had his colours done, or went to the right shops. Jesus does not use the word linon (which which we get our word ‘linen’) but the word busson, meaning not just ordinary linen, but ‘fine’ linen, and not just ‘fine’ but the very best. This was the clothing worn only by the high priest and only on the day of Atonement—it was reserved for the most special of special occasions. It look a lot of work to make this material—but it also took a lot of work to keep it clean. You could not just throw it in the washing machine and hope for the best. And his ‘purple’ was Tyrian purple, the most expensive cloth money could buy. If you wanted to make some, you would have to go down to the sea, and gather tiny murex sea snails—10,000 for one garment—and go through a laborious process of crushing them and extracting the dye in order to create your garment. It was so expensive that there was a good trade in the cloth (it is what Lydia from Thyatira did, whom Paul meets in Acts 16), and there were strict rules about who was allowed to wear it—in the Roman Empire, the emperor and senators. This was the clothing not just of the elite, but of the elite of the elite.
And he ‘lived in luxury every day’. Actually, he feasted. The word Jesus uses here refers to the same thing the father does when he sees his lost, ‘prodigal’ son return—he kills the fatted calf. (I’ve always felt rather sorry for the calf…!). It is the kind of thing that a poor person might just manage once a year, and even the wealthy would only afford occasionally—but this man does it every day. And he does it ‘splendidly’, showing off for all to see and admire his wealth. Jesus’ parables often have a comic element—you are allowed to laugh at what Jesus says, since he clearly had (and has) a sense of humour. And here we see a kind of black comedy, in this portrait of the most extreme wealth you could imagine. One word in verse 20 completes the picture; his house has a gate; he lives in a mansion, perhaps a complex of buildings, and it is important to keep undesirables out.
And one person he manages to keep out is Lazarus—by contrast with the rich man, almost a parody of poverty. Jesus does not mention his clothes, quite possible because he has none. And that is why we can see that he is covered with sores. The language here is not just of sickness, but of judgement—sores covered Job when he was afflicted by Satan as a test, and sores afflict those in the plagues of the Book of Revelation (Rev 16.2). No doubt the rich man was happy with the narrative that he lived under God’s blessing, and Lazarus under God’s curse, as were many of Jesus’ listeners as he told the parable. The wealthy would often use bread to wipe their hands and mouth in lieu of a napkin, and throw the used bread on the ground, and this is what Lazarus is longing for. He can’t even rummage in the man’s rubbish bin. The dogs who come to him are no domestic pets, but the wild mongrels who roam the streets of the town at night. Licking his wounds it not a sign that they are helping. Even at the point of death, this stark difference remains: the man is ‘buried’ as any respectable Jew would be, whilst Lazarus simply ‘dies’.
And then there comes the moment of the Great Reversal. It is a reversal that Luke has told us about all through his gospel. When he records Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes in Luke 6, he does not just include the reversal that we feel comfortable with (‘Blessed are you who hunger, for you will be satisfied’, Luke 6.21) but the other, inevitable half of the reversal which we tried so hard to avoid (‘Woe to you that are well fed now, for you will go hungry’ Luke 6.25). And this Great Reversal has from the beginning been an integral part of the good news that he is announcing. When Mary accepts the message of the angel Gabriel, this reversal is what she focuses on:
He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant…He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1.48–53)
In fact, if we had listened carefully, we would not be taken by surprise by this reversal. For whilst the rich man is unnamed, the poor man is Lazarus, a translation of the Hebrew name Eleazar. Any name beginning with ‘El–’ means ‘God [is something]’ and Eleazar means ‘God is my help’. The popular proverb says that ‘God helps those who help themselves, but so often in the Scriptures, the poor are those who look to God for help since there is nowhere else they can look. The rich man is perfectly capable of helping himself, but Lazarus looks to God.
And in the Great Reversal in the world of this parable that we have entered, Jesus teaches us what wealth has done to this rich man. We are already clear that it has made him the centre of his own world, and hardened his heart in indifference to the poor, even those at his gate. But even in judgement, even when he has been confronted with the consequences of his decisions (for judgement always confronts us with reality), he continues to remain concerned for his own needs—and is happy to treat Lazarus as a servant who might do his bidding. (Through the parable, Lazarus is passive and wordless, whilst the rich man, though unnamed, is the principle actor.) And when his own needs cannot be met, then his concern remains for ‘his own’, his own family, those others who also shared his wealth and so now need his warning, a warning that neither he nor they heeded, even though it was made plain in their scriptures.
(Again, we need to remember that this is not a less in post-mortem cosmic geography. Jesus uses the language of Hades, which was understood to be the realm of all the dead, not just the damned [so it does not correspond to ‘hell’, Gehenna], and is similar to the Old Testament idea of Sheol. The idea would have made sense to Jews, but particularly to Gentiles, who are Luke’s main audience and for whom Luke is concerned to make Jesus’ teaching accessible, comprehensible and relevant. The picture here is of both Lazarus and the rich man in Hades, but in different parts; the rich man ‘lifting up his eyes’ is just an idiom for ‘looking’.)
Perhaps the most striking part of this world that we have entered is the ‘chasm’ fixed between Lazarus and the rich man—but it is really a chasm of the rich man’s making. The choices that he has made in life have been cemented as a destiny in death. C S Lewis deploys a similar idea in his extended parable The Great Divorce, and it is summed up in the proverb:
Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.
The rich man’s thought has only been about himself, and his actions have reflected that. As this has shaped his habits and character, so now he reaps his destiny. The gate in life which he never chosen to traverse to help the poor has become a chasm in death he is not able to traverse.
Here, Jesus’ teaching about the dangers of wealth are of a piece with his teaching elsewhere, not least earlier in this chapter. He has just told the parable of the shrewd steward, who makes friends by cunning use of ‘unrighteous mammon’ (Luke 16.9). Though all wealth comes from God (Ps 24.1), wealth and possessions can easily come to have a life of their own and become a spiritual force, so Jesus uses not the usual term for wealth but the name of the pagan god Mammon consistently in his teaching. That is why they are called ‘possessions’—because they can so easily possess us. As a counter to that, he reminds us that what we have is only ‘what has been loaned’ to us by God (Luke 16.12); we are called to be good stewards of that which actually belongs to God—something the rich man had clearly forgotten. And not just the rich man; uniquely in the gospels the Pharisees are characterised as those who ‘love money’ (Luke 16.14). One of the major dangers, which can strangle to death our spiritual life, is the ‘worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’ (Mark 4.19).
Jesus’ message here is consistent with other parts of the New Testament. In Rev 18, John in his vision sees the final destruction of Rome and its empire, described metaphorically as Babylon because both empires had destroyed Jerusalem and killed God’s people—and because both empires luxuriated in their wealth and opulence. The judgement scene here is very similar to the judgement of Tyre in Ezekiel 18, also denounced for its wealth and oppression. The ‘sexual immorality’ that is constantly denounced throughout the book is closely allied to ‘food offered to idols’ (Rev 2.20) and John appears to be re-using the prophetic metaphor of adultery for the worship of other gods. But Rev 18 makes clear which god it is that people are worshipping:
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries. (Rev 18.3)
It is god Mammon who has wooed the nations away from the true God, as we can see in the description of Rome as a high-class courtesan—using identical words to the description of the rich man in the parable. And it is this god who empties our churches; every country in the developed world, all the wealthy nations, have experienced decline in church attendance.
All these exaggerated images, the parable of Jesus and the vision of John, are of course a long way from the world we live in.
Or are they?
Grenfell Tower which was destroyed in a tragic and disastrous fire just a couple of weeks ago, was located in one of the richest boroughs in Britain. The savings made by using the less fire-retardant panels totalled £293,000, which works out at a cost saving of around £500 per resident. Walk for ten minutes down the road and you will come to leafy Kensington Palace Gardens, where Saudi princes, global plutocrats and ambassadors live in mansions worth £41m on average. It is the most expensive street in the country. And it is guarded by a gate.
How can we renounce the power of mammon in our own lives? Whether we feel well off or badly off, mammon can have a grip on us either through our complacency or our disatisfaction. Perhaps the best advice comes from John Wesley in his three-fold dictum:
- Earn all you can: live with industry, knowing that all you have is a gift from God who calls us to be good stewards.
- Save all you can: live with simplicity, knowing that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions (Luke 12.15). Just because we can buy something does not mean that we should.
- Give all you can: live with a generosity which reflects God’s own generosity to us in Jesus. Giving things away drives a stake through the heart of the god Mammon.
There are many gods in our world—Eros (the god of sexual pleasure), Mars (the god of war and conflict), Fortuna (the god of trusting to luck). But the greatest of these is mammon, and Jesus invites us instead to worship the true God and be faithful to him.
(This sermon was preaching on Sunday 2nd July at St Nic’s and can be listened to on the St Nic’s website).
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